That is roughly the message that Vladimir Putin has been sending out as he prepares to take the stage at the UN general assembly later this month: let’s all ally ourselves with Bashar al-Assad – the Syrian president may be a murderous thug, but we shouldn’t let that stand in our way. The Russian leader’s message encapsulates the biggest dilemma western policymakers now face as they confront the spillover from the war in Syria.
Kissinger’s priority in 1975 was to use the Khmer Rouge as a “counterweight” to North Vietnam. Putin’s priority is to cast Assad as the main bulwark against Isis, and to position Russia as the centrepiece of a new international strategy on Syria. Russia has moved fast to demonstrate its assertiveness. It has begun a military deployment in coastal areas of Syria controlled by the Assad regime – which has caught western officials off balance.
What does Russia seek to achieve? One old hope has resurfaced: is Putin preparing for a post-Assad Syria, with a peace settlement in the making? There is no doubt that basking in international recognition is something the Russian president would enjoy: remember how, in 2013, he helped Obama wriggle out of his commitment to airstrikes against Syria by arranging a deal over Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Syria-fatigue in western circles has reached such a point that Putin has a good opportunity to cast himself as the man with a plan. Who, he might disingenuously ask, could possibly object to fighting Isis as part of a wider alliance? But this is precisely the problem. Western failure in the region is one thing, but it doesn’t mean that the Russian president can bring salvation. Quite the contrary.
“How many did [the Khmer Rouge] kill? Tens of thousands?” asked Henry Kissinger in 1975 when he sat down with Thailand’s foreign minister to discuss the genocide in Cambodia. “You should tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them,” Kissinger went on. “They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in the way.”